The Rev. Willie F. Wilson, a Baptist minister and community activist in Washington, D.C., believes that most Christians, and especially African-Americans, are victims of a spiritual illness. In his religious self-help book "Releasing the Power Within Through Spiritual Dynamics," Wilson gives that illness a name: Christianity.

The Rev. Wilson wags his finger not at Christianity per se but at the ritualistic nature of modern Christianity, which he feels focuses unduly on idolatry and dogma at the expense of genuine spiritual enlightenment. He blames St. Paul--specifically, the apostle's promise that "faith alone" leads to salvation-- for this doctrinaire Christianity.

Apparently, it is this Pauline emphasis on a confession of faith in Christ that transformed what was intended to be a personal, even mystical, experience of God into, ironically, the dead letter of the law. It led Christians to proclaim their belief through rituals but stopped short of letting them enjoy a personal, or mystical, experience of God. "Official" Christianity, with its catechisms and doctrines, has hidden the true word of Christ from the masses. In the process, people have lost touch with the true word of Christ. Christians may love Christ, but they don't love their fellows as Christ.

The true Christian mission, Wilson says, is not to worship Christ but to emulate him, to become "Christs on Earth." This is possible, he suggests, not through external rituals but through an internal process that focuses on awakening the "God-consciousness" within.

Wilson regards the emphasis of ritual over emulation not so much as genuine Christianity but as inertia. "We call ourselves Christians because our parents call themselves Christians" is a refrain throughout the book.

Wilson's contention that "Christ is an attainable consciousness for all human beings" does to some degree diminish Jesus' uniquely divine stature as God's only son. But that's his point--to humanize Christ, to visualize a Nazarene who is more guru than God.

To this end, Wilson tells us that Christ spent his lost years wandering through India, where he used breathing techniques and yoga to perfect control of his mind and body. The image Wilson paints is of someone experiencing the Zen notion of satori, whereby an individual's sense of "self" is purged. The person achieves an enlightened awareness of his oneness with all things. It was in just such a state of rapt contemplation, Wilson conjectures, that Christ attained "God consciousness." Wilson asserts that by following a similar path, you too can "fulfill your potential to become the sons and daughters of God." If Christ the guru can do it, so can you.

Christians who believe that Christ, Son of God, could do things that they cannot might bristle at Wilson's message. To those who doubt their own ability to "transform into a divine essence," Wilson offers this insight: "A cow does not give birth to a horse," meaning that we must be of the same essence as our creator, God.

Such logic ignores the fact that God can perform miracles, while elevated primates can't. Still, Wilson makes a strong case that the true teachings of Christ have been systematically exorcised from formal Christian doctrine. In particular, he criticizes the fourth-century Roman Emperor Constantine, who "legalized" Christianity in an empire primarily pagan and began the process by which Christ's teachings were irrevocably fixed in the European tradition.

Wilson charges that Constantine used Christianity as an opiate to unify his empire and establish a white ruling structure that subverted the true teachings of an Afrocentric Christ. Wilson is more convincing--perhaps because he actually has documentation--when he later asserts that slaves were taught a perversion of Christianity that was aimed at nurturing their subservience.

The descendants of those slaves are modern Christians whose "biblical brainwashing and programming" prevent them from embracing Christ's true message: that you too can be a God. Wilson feels that this is particularly true of those who are oppressed--racially, economically, socially--those whose self-esteem has been twisted inward to the point that "they simply can't believe that God's essence resides inside of them." And even though Christ's message was once directed to the oppressed, they fail to see themselves reflected back in Christianity's decadent white ruling structure. Nor does society expect them to.

Wilson sets about changing that.

He presents the oppressed with a Jesus that they can relate to, saying that Christ was a black man who grew up in a "ghetto." And, giving Christianity's central figure a decidedly Buddhist cast, he exhorts his readers with self-help buzzwords, calling on them to "vaccinate" themselves from "threats to self-worth and self-value."

Throughout the book, Wilson is prone to blatant fits of overstatement, telling us that these ideas can change our lot "overnight." He's also fond of all-encompassing labels, at one point referring to Egypt as "the greatest, most advanced and powerful civilization to ever grace the planet." Such generalizations, along with the self-actualizing jargon, make for shoddy scholarship. In short, when Wilson isn't co-opting pop-Buddhist thought, he seems not to be thinking at all.

While conveying a marked compassion for the oppressed, this self-help book will no doubt fall short of awakening a God-like consciousness in its readers. But it can perhaps awaken the oppressed to their own beautiful possibilities as elevated primates.

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